Groundhog Day in Latin America

The 1993 film “Groundhog Day,” directed by Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray and Andie McDowell, is about a weatherman who finds himself living the same day over and over again, unable to escape the endlessly recycled past of one day and move on into the future. So it goes for US relations with Latin America & the Caribbean.
Since the Cold War ended in 1989, a succession of U.S. presidents, starting with George H.W. Bush and continuing through William Jefferson Clinton and George W. Bush, have inaugurated their administrations with pledges to “turn the page” and launch a new era in US-Latin America relations. But while US presidents come and go, the same page is always being turned, and nothing really changes at the core of US-Latin America relations. In fact, over the past two decades Latin America and the US clearly have moved much further apart than they were in 1989.
To be fair, some important advances have been scored in the area of hemispheric trade. The North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) between the US, Mexico and Canada was negotiated from 1990-92 and implemented in January 1994.

Fifteen years have passed since Nafta’s launch, and the trade and investment data from the three member countries show there have been clear gains across the board for all participants. [However, Nafta with the US and Canada was never Mexico’s first choice. Then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1990 proposed a free trade pact like Nafta with the European Union, but Brussels rebuffed Salinas, so Mexico was forced instead to proposeNafta to the hated gringos.]
The Clinton and Bush (Jr.) administrations also negotiated and implemented FTA’s with Chile and Central America. But proposed FTA’s with the Andean countries have foundered on the shoals of partisan US politicking in Washington.

Moreover, the crown jewel of US policy in the region – the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) – has gone the way of the extinct Dodo bird. FTAA summits are still being held periodically. Yet another FTAA summit will be held next April in Trinidad & Tobago, but no one should reasonably expect any progress on hemispheric trade
Meanwhile, President-elect Barack Obama is now making identical “turn the page” pledges to Latin American leaders as he prepares to take office next week.

During a meeting with Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon in Washington last week, Obama promised “a new page” in US-Latin America relations during his administration.
Spanish news agency Efe reports that Calderon asked for a “strategic alliance” with the US to manage issues of mutual concern.

Standing alongside Calderon at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, a smiling Obama pledged “a new page, a new chapter” with the region.
Mexico is a “strong ally” and the US has a “strong alliance” with Mexico, but during Obama’s administration US-Mexico relations will be “even stronger,” the US president-elect declared before a gaggle of Latin American reporters.
Obama said his administration will be “prepared from our first day” in office to maintain a “strong relation” with Mexico. Two issues of mutual concern are energy and the environment, Obama added.
But during their two-hour private luncheon, which featured tortilla soup among other Mexican culinary delicacies, issues like trade, immigration and the escalating war between the Mexican state and drug cartels only were touched “in a general way,” say spokesmen for Calderon and Obama.
However, Calderon told reporters that he specifically asked Obama for a strategic alliance to help Mexico battle the drug cartels and organized crime.

“The safer Mexico is, the safer the US will be too,” Calderon said, adding that his meeting with Obama was “very productive and constructive.”
Should the rest of Latin America be encouraged by the constructive luncheon Calderon and Obama shared? No, probably not.
First, all US presidents pledge at the start of their administrations to turn the page in US-Latin America relations, but a few weeks or even days into the job reality raises its ugly head and other, more pressing global issues push Latin America to the sidelines.

A very short list of the issues confronting Obama at the outset of his administration include rescuing the imploding US economy from its worst crisis since the Great Depression of 1929-33, the latest war in Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan, winning the global war on terror, and halting Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons which the Mad Mullahs in Tehran certainly will launch at Israel. At best, Latin America will be just a footnote on Obama’s foreign policy agenda.
Second, Mexico is not representative of Latin America. In fact, most Central and South Americans don’t even consider Mexico to be part of Latin America, especially not since Nafta was launched in 1994.

Mexico certainly will be a top priority for Obama in the Americas. Besides Nafta, which is vitally important to the US and Mexican economies, Obama also must come to grips with the fact that Mexico is a failing state where corrupt public officials and murderous drug cartels are destroying the country’s democratic institutions. If the Mexican state collapses on Obama’s watch, the drug wars in Mexico will flood into the US with the force of a Tsunami.
Illegal immigration from Mexico also will remain a hot-button partisan issue in Washington, although US lawmakers don’t have the guts to do anything about securing the US-Mexico border.
Third, US foreign policy towards Latin America has been very consistent over the past two decades since the Cold War ended. Any perceived differences in Latin America policy between Democratic and Republican administrations have been differences of degree, not substance. These are core pillars of US foreign policy in Latin America:
· Expanding free trade.
· Bringing democracy to Cuba.
· Winning the war on drugs in Colombia.
Looking briefly at these issues:
Expanding Free Trade: The FTAA is DOA. It started dying way back in December 1994 when the Mexican peso collapsed. Mexico’s financial meltdown was the first foreign policy crisis confronted by the Republican majority that won control of both chambers of Congress in the November 1994 elections. In December of that year the first Summit of the Americas was held in Miami, and everyone present (except Cuba, which wasn’t invited) agreed unanimously to negotiate and implement the FTAA by 2005, with Chile joining Nafta before the end of 1995. The new Republican congressional majority, which arrived in Washington with an electoral mandate to end freebies for all, was gratly pissed that President Clinton demanded they approve a bailout for Mexico. In the end, Congress rejected Clinton’s demand and Mexico was rescued financially when Clinton used his executive power to tap the Treasury directly for bailout funds.
But while Mexico (or, more precisely, Mexico’s largest banks) refloated financially, the FTAA process sank like the Titanic. FTAA negotiators have been “dando patadas de ahogado” ever since, but the proposed FTAA is as cold and stiff as your average corpse forgotten on the floor in a hallway of the Bello Monte morgue in Caracas.

The GOP congressional majority turned its back on free trade in 1995, the Democratic minority cried “we told ya so,” and Brazil took advantage of the Mexican peso crisis to float its Mercosur customs union as a better regional alternative than the FTAA. Now Democrats are the congressional majority, and they dislike free trade even more than the GOP.
Meanwhile, some 14 years after Brazil betrayed the US and its smaller neighbors in the region by going its own way, Mercosur still has no FTA with the European Union, Mercosur still has not emerged as a credible regional trade and development entity, and all of Mercosur’s member states are ruled by pusillanimous, populist, corrupt, anti-US socialist governments who continue to whine that the US is not paying sufficient attention (ie dispensing more aid) to the region.
Bringing Democracy to Cuba: The Obama administration will change longstanding US policy towards Cuba (ie end the 50-year-old embargo), according to recent news reports citing unnamed “Obama advisers on Latin America.”

[A point worth noting: In Washington, DC, foreign policy “advisers” are more numerous than stars in the sky, and when a newspaper story cites “unnamed advisers” it frequently involves people who have little or no input whatsoever at the highest levels of the administration. More often than not, these unnamed “advisers” are wannabes looking for a job, any job, in the executive or legislative branches of the US government. Many DC reporters trying to piece together a story call everyone in their Rolodex, ask questions meant to “flesh out” their “research,” and write stories with little regard for accuracy or the truth.]
US policy towards Cuba has always been simple: allow free elections so the Cuban people can decide freely whether they want to perpetuate the communist thuggery of the Castro brothers, or instead support the emergence of a pluralist democracy with room at the table for all factions.

Of course, this will never happen while the Castros and their criminal cronies run the show on the island because they know voters would kick them out of power immediately.
So what, counter US and Latin American critics of the US embargo. Obama has the power to end the embargo, they say.

Actually, Obama does not have this power, and if tries to flex some presidential muscle he will run afoul of US federal law.
The US embargo is the law of the land, enshrined in the Helms-Burton Act approved by Congress in February 1996 after Russian-made Cuban jet fighters shot down unarmed aircraft piloted by the Miami-based group called “Hermanos al Rescate,” which flies daily over the Florida Straits searching for Cuban “balseros” paddling their way to freedom in the US.
The Helms-Burton Act (ie the embargo against Cuba) can only be changed or terminated by an act of Congress which the US president subsequently would have to sign into law.

But this possibility is off the table now thanks to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has changed the rules of the House to completely exclude the Republican minority from having any vote or participation in drafting and passing legislation.
If Pelosi treats Republican lawmakers like dog manure on the sole of her shoe, the GOP certainly won’t cooperate with the Democratic majority, so there’s no chance at all of a bipartisan congressional initiative to end the embargo against Cuba, and the Democratic majority lacks sufficient votes in the House and Senate to unilaterally amend or nullify the Helms Burton Act.
Winning the War on Drugs in Colombia: The US has been waging its Colombian drug war since the early 1970’s to no lasting effect. About 40 years have passed since the US targeted the defunct Medellin cartel foe extinction. Pablo Escobar was killed in December 1993, the Medellin and Cali cartels vanished, new cartels including the Farc sprang up, and Colombian cocaine and heroin still circles the globe effortlessly.

In fact, Washington’s failed war on drugs globally is now almost 100 years old, since it began officially in 1914 when the US State Department sought to curry favor with China’s emperor in exchange for the emperor’s allowing US companies to invest in Chinese assets.
There will be changes in US policy towards Colombia under Obama. For starters, less US military assistance and more US congressional demands on the Colombian state to “respect human rights,” a favorite issue with communist/socialist human rights, indigenous and environmental NGO’s in the US, EU and Latin America.

As President Alvaro Uribe Velez’s administration fades into the sunset over the coming two years, the radical left and terrorist groups like the Farc may win space to recover and grow again. But the drug wars will continue, and never will be won as long as human beings populate the earth.
Most human beings enjoy sex, gambling and ingesting mind-altering substances.The most sensible course would be to decriminalize the illegal narcotics industry and treat it like the tobacco and alcoholic beverage industries, regulating product quality and taxing the bejesus out of legally incorporated producers.
But US legislators collectively lack the cojones to support such bold, out-of-the-box proposals even though America’s history of the Prohibition era taught that criminalizing something most people take pleasure in doing is a guaranteed booster of organized crime.
But wait! There’s more! Latin America wants the US – Obama – to show more R-E-S-P-E-C-T towards the region.

Let’s examine this demand.
Should the US pursue more multilateral approaches to managing problems in the region which affect US strategic issues, perhaps through the Organization of American States (OAS)?
Question: What does the OAS actually do? Answer: Nothing.

In practice, the OAS is a Washington-based tax-exempt employment agency mainly (90%-plus) for Latin Americans. The OAS could be shut down, its buildings turned into condominium apartments, shopping malls or parking garages, and it would have no impact whatsoever on political developments in Latin America, or on US-Latin America relations.
A former Jamaican Ambassador to the OAS, who was well into his cups at a cocktail party in Washington, told Caracas Gringo about ten years ago that he had “the best job in the world: I get paid in US dollars, I get free housing, a chauffeured limousine and a diplomatic passport which lets me go anywhere in the world without being molested by customs officials, in exchange for doing absolutely nothing except making speeches and attending cocktail parties like this one.”
How else does Latin America expect Obama to show R-E-S-P-E-C-T towards the region?

Stop interfering in the region, many Latin Americans say. What interference?
The last time the US intervened militarily anywhere in Latin America was in Panama in 1989. The US army went into Panama, captured Colombian drug cartel ally Manuel Noriega and left the country almost immediately. Today Panama is a democratic state, which would not have happened while Noriega and his thugs remained in power.
Get out of Colombia, Latin American critics of the US demand. The democratically-elected Colombian government sought US support to fight the communist Farc terrorists and criminal drug cartels which threaten the freedom and rights of all Colombians.

Are there any Latin American governments out there willing to step into the breach and support Colombia’s fight to save its democracy from dictators and thugs. Brazil, perhaps, or maybe Ecuador or Venezuela?
Here’s a thought.

If Latin America’s current socialist/populist heads of state and certain elites want more respect from the US in particular, and from the rest of the world generally, they could start by taking responsibility for their own failures and omissions.
Consider where much of the region is today. Economically, the largest economies (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela) rode the global commodities bubble for several years, and new (Chinese, Indian) players came into the region. But these Latin American countries are still locked into the same old model of exporting raw materials to other countries, in exchange for letting these countries flood the region with cheap imports, usually to the detriment of local industry.
President Hugo Chavez, a thug who actively works to destabilize Colombia and other countries in the region, has ruined Venezuela’s economy for several generations to come; actively supports terrorists like the Farc, Eta, Hamas and Hezbollah; and intervenes constantly in the sovereign internal affairs of countries like Bolivia, Argentina, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil and other countries.
Yet we don’t hear even a peep of protest from anyone in the region except Colombian President Uribe and El Salvador’s President Antonio Saca, because every other socialist/populist/progressive government in Central and South America is too busy pimping Chavez for all the petro-freebies they can obtain.
The list of things that need to be done urgently in Latin America has not changed over the past 30 years: Open up markets, downsize and decentralize the state, privatize state-owned industries and public services, reform political institutions and the judiciary, combat corruption and organized crime effectively, develop free market solutions to reduce structural poverty by teaching people how to make progress with their own self-initiative. Remember the old saying about teaching a man to fish?

Sadly, two decades after the Cold War, Latin America’s current crop of leaders and left-leaning whiney elites still sound like a bunch of newbie drunks at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, blaming everyone and everything except themselves for their own failures.

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About Caracas Gringo

Representing less than 0.00000000001515152% of the world population as of 31 December 2011.
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